There’s no getting away from the fact that marketing your app costs money, and often, it can be difficult to directly attribute the money you spend to the results you see. But not so with paid User Acquisition where your marketing budget can be magically turned into brand new app users, giving you a very clear Cost Per Install amount. This type of mobile app advertising is one of the most predictable ways to achieve scale, because if everything runs as it should, the more you spend, the more you get.
But not all core paid user acquisition platforms are made equal. In fact, the top five each offer something different. And you’ve probably worked out by now that means that you should carefully consider the pros and cons of each before committing your budget to one (or more) of them.
To help you make the right decision, we rated the top 5 user acquisition platforms from 1 to 5, where 1 is the lowest and 5 is the highest, in terms of their:
- Scalability – The capacity to sustainably increase spend MoM, without negatively affecting ad performance
- Targeting – How advanced and specific are your audience targeting options
- Creative testing opportunities – Essential for discovering which ads drive your audience to engage with key in-app events
- Tracking – The ability to determine where your users are coming from
- Cost-effectiveness – The possibility to deliver the lowest CPA
Here’s what it looks like.
I mean, it seems simple enough, right? But there’s a reason why we haven’t simply totted up the totals to recommend one platform to rule them all – it’s that age-old adage: your mileage may vary. Choosing the right mobile app advertising platform depends on a number of factors, like the size of your budget, what kind of user you’re targeting, what creative assets you have, and the vertical you’re operating in.
It’s almost as if the whole subject needs a dedicated article…
The pros and cons of mobile app advertising platforms
Facebook & Instagram
These are grouped together because Meta is the company behind both Facebook and Instagram, and you set up both types of campaigns from Facebook’s advertising platform. You can specify App Installs as a campaign goal, which will optimise your activity for your particular end result.
Advantages of Facebook
Facebook has 2.93 billion monthly active users, while Instagram has over a billion, so there are a lot of users for you to target. In fact, targeting is the platform’s strength – you can select your audience based on what they’re interested in, those that follow competitor brands, based on life events, where they live and more. You can also retarget those part-way down your sales funnel, such as users who downloaded your app but are yet to convert into paid subscribers.
These user acquisition platforms make it particularly easy to test your ad creative, allowing multiple tests to be run on everything from the imagery used to the copy that sits alongside it. These insights and learnings can then be iterated on, and eventually rolled out across paid user acquisition platforms – and indeed, applied to the marketing strategy as a whole.
Disadvantages of Facebook
While you can target these different demographics, you can’t necessarily know that they’ll be interested in your product – someone who follows Joe Wicks on Facebook is not guaranteed to be in the market for a new fitness app.
Facebook, servicing millions of advertisers, has also quite limited customer experience – ad accounts have been known to be blocked and ads not approved, and it can be very difficult to find out why. Some new advertisers have also found that their accounts have had restrictive daily budget limits placed on them.
Speaking of the budget, unlike some other paid user acquisition platforms, you can start with a small weekly budget. In Facebook’s own words “If you want to spend £5 a week, you can. If you want to spend £50,000 a week, you can do that too”.
Who it works for
An app advertising platform with this reach has the potential to work for everybody. While the users of Facebook skew older than those on Instagram, you can specify where your ads appear to somewhat negate this issue.
TikTok had 1.2 billion monthly active users by the end of 2021 and is expected to reach 1.8 billion by the end of 2022, making it the fastest growing social media platform. And while it might have started life devoted to lip-syncing and dance moves, there are now videos for every interest, coining niches including FinanceTok, BookTok, FitnessTok and more.
Advantages of TikTok
21% of users said that ads on TikTok were more trendsetting than ads on other user acquisition platforms, so if you want to be regarded as ahead of the curve, it’s the place to be. It’s also a good way of targeting a younger audience – 25% of users are 10-19 yrs and 22% are 20-29.
You can target by location, gender, age, and interests and behaviours. Interests mean you can find people interested in what you offer – although these categories are relatively broad compared to Facebook. Behaviour pertains to how people use the platform – those people who have commented, liked or otherwise engaged with a video or creators in your chosen interest area. You can also specify Android- or iOS-only users.
Disadvantages of TikTok
Did we mention that ads on TikTok are commonly agreed to be trendsetting? This presents a problem if your ad creative isn’t up to scratch. The ads that do well on this platform are native in style, as in they follow the TikTok aesthetic or tap into one of the particular TikTok trends. Assets also have to be videos, not images (TikTok will take your money if you only have images, but they’ll only show them on their partner apps such as Pangle and News Republic).
There’s a minimum spend of £50 a day, and it can take a while to see the results you want, as the algorithm can be slow to learn to optimise your ad spend.
Who it works for
Because of the minimum budget (see below), this is a platform that requires a monthly budget of thousands, not hundreds of pounds. And because of the type of content that works on this platform, it’s those that can afford a mobile creative ad agency that will do best on this platform.
Google’s ad infrastructure is vast, incorporating Search, Shopping, YouTube, Google Play and third-party websites – meaning there is no one demographic catered to.
It’s also well set up to cater to app-specific campaigns. Unlike most Google Ads campaigns, you don’t have to design individual ads for App campaigns. Instead, the ad text, images, videos and assets from your app’s store listing is used to design a variety of ads across several formats and networks.
Advantages of Google
Google Ads is somewhat of a must-have for app developers, given that it gives you extra exposure in the Google Play Store where your customers are guaranteed to hang out. If you have the resources to dedicate, it can also be a fantastic place to experiment and learn more about your target audience. By setting up different Ad Groups, you can begin to get some first-class data on what kind of creatives your audience responds to, the keywords they’re searching for and more.
Increasingly, Google is employing AI to optimise campaigns, which means there’s a lot less manual work needed to run a successful marketing campaign than there was just 12 months ago.
Disadvantages of Google
While the likes of Facebook allow you to target your audience in quite a granular way, Google relies more on intent. This means they serve your ad when someone demonstrates they’re interested in what you offer – searching for a “fitness app”, for instance – rather than you being able to target 23 yr old men in London who follow Joe Wicks on Instagram.
You also can’t block certain device types, which is important because this can mean your traffic can be high volume but ultimately of low quality. You can improve this by targeting and paying for a specific event, such as app installs, which will allow the algorithm to learn the type of traffic you value over time.
More budget will mean higher quality traffic. It requires spending £100+ a day to see app installs that will turn into quality long-term users.
Who it works for
Because of the sheer scale of the ad platform, Google Ads has the potential to work for every app type. For those with a small budget, however, there are more effective ways to spend that money.
Snapchat is huge in the US, with 87 million of the platform’s 300 million users based there (20 million are in the UK). Overall, almost 40% of users are 18-24 yrs, so it’s a platform that skews to a younger audience. Ads can take the form of a single image or video, or something more advanced, like a sponsored filter or AR lens (such as a sunglasses brand allowing users to “try their products on”).
Advantages of Snapchat
While not in any way related in business terms, Snapchat shares its asset dimensions with Facebook, which means that if you’ve created assets for Facebook you can reuse them on Snapchat.
Also similar to Facebook is the quality of audience targeting. You can choose preselected audiences, such as crypto-enthusiasts, book lovers or business travellers. Of particular note for app developers is the ability to define not just an operating system, but a particular make of device or carrier. This means better use of budget if you know your app only works on more recent Apple devices, for instance.
Disadvantages of Snapchat
Much like TikTok, your Snapchat campaign will live or die based on its appropriateness to that platform. Creative videos that fit into what users expect from Snapchat will do well, while more traditional ads will do less so.
The platform has a minimum spend of £20 per day.
Who it works for
Snapchat is not an app advertising platform that often works for those apps with a more adult audience, such as Fintech. Before spending any money here, it’s worth considering whether 18-24 is your target audience – although you can define your age range when you set up your campaign, if your audience is older there are better user acquisition platforms to reach them on.
Apple Search Ads (ASA)
One app advertising platform that hasn’t struggled since Apple’s App Tracking Transparency (ATT) was introduced, is Apple Search Ads. Since 2020, the platform has tripled its market share of mobile app advertising. What makes it a top consideration for mobile app marketers? As a native Apple advertising platform, tracking is seamless and isn’t impacted by Apple’s App Tracking Transparency (ATT).
You can choose to use the Simple or Advanced version of the platform, either appearing simply in search results once people type a query, or there and also on the search screen itself before anything is typed. Like Google Play, your ads are automatically created using the metadata and imagery from your App Store product page.
Advantages of Apple Search Ads
Users who discover your app through Apple Search Ads have high intent, looking for a particular service, so your conversions are likely to have higher retention compared to other channels.
Using Apple Search Ads means you can track your iOS campaigns end-to-end, so you can be entirely confident you’re getting the reported number of downloads for your money. The audience targeting is limited, but you can use keyword targeting to find an audience interested in your product.
There’s also the option to create different landing pages for your different acquisition campaigns (Custom Product Pages), which means you can collect data on what kind of information your audience responds to, which in turn, can inform your wider ASO strategy.
Disadvantages of Apple Search Ads
It can be difficult to reach scale using this platform – there are only a certain number of keywords your user is likely to search for in relation to your app. While currently, the cost is relatively low, this is becoming a more popular audience acquisition channel, which means costs are slowly but surely creeping up as it becomes more competitive. There’s also a very limited amount of data available in terms of results, particularly when compared to something like Google’s offering.
You can start with as little as £5 a day, but if you want to scale you need to spend more – particularly if you’re in a competitive vertical like gaming, finance or fitness.
Who it works for
It’s pretty much a must-have part of the marketing mix for any iOS app.
The role of a Mobile Measurement Partner (MMP)
We mentioned at the beginning that this type of mobile app advertising provides quantifiable results – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that those results are accurate.
The most important step in setting up these campaigns is installing a Mobile Measurement Partner (MMP), such as Appsflyer, Adjust or Branch to accurately attribute each install correctly, rather than relying on the data from self-attributing networks such as Facebook, Google or Snapchat. Using an MMP also makes it possible to create events and track milestones, so you can begin to really get a sense of the effectiveness of your investment.
To use an MMP on iOS devices most efficiently, it’s necessary to gain user opt-in via the AppTrackingTransparency framework. The alternative is to measure all Apple activity via their default SKAdNetwork, which is delayed conversion data, only tracking in-app events triggered within 24 hours of install.
It would be remiss not to mention the elephant in the room: real-world performance. These types of user acquisition campaigns can work brilliantly if you hit upon the right creative, combined with the right targeting, combined with the right goal and budget spend. But getting to that point can take a lot of experimentation (and therefore money!), and that requires patience.
It can also be a frustrating experience to be subject to the whims of the mobile app advertising platform in question. Why one ad gets approved and another rejected can be somewhat of a mystery, and even when you think you’ve cracked it, the platform in question has the power to move the goalposts practically overnight. It can be worthwhile to create a media plan that covers a range of user acquisition platforms, with budgets allocated to each, in order to create the kind of flexibility that will allow you to quickly reallocate spend if one platform begins to underperform.
But with those words of warning duly covered, we can end on a positive note: there is nothing quite like seeing a conversion rate creep up over time, as you finetune your targeting and your creative.
Go forth and advertise!